Did you know the Surface Pro 4 isn’t Microsoft’s latest flagship tablet? No, that honor goes to the new Microsoft Surface Pro 6 – now, read our hands on impressions of the Surface Pro 6!
Microsoft Surface Pro 4: The Essential Review
Our ‘essential review’ of the Surface Pro 4 contains all of the highlights (and lowlights) of Microsoft’s 2015 Windows 10 tablet. It’s intended as a more digestible summary of our full-length review, in that it shouldn’t take more than half a minute to read.
While it was officially succeeded by the Surface Pro 2017 – which itself has now been succeeded by the Surface Pro 6 – the Surface Pro 4 is still worth your time, even in 2018. This is because, when it was first launched back in October 2015, the Surface Pro 4 was praised as the natural progression of the Surface Pro lineage.
The Surface Pro 4 withstands the test of time, even in the face of the new Surface Pro 6. And, unlike its predecessor, which ran Windows 8.1, the Surface Pro 4 runs on pure Windows 10. This is huge, especially considering everything Windows 10 can do.
Microsoft put a lot of effort into perfecting the Surface Pro 4’s design, rather than reinventing the wheel. It retains the general look and feel of the Surface Pro 3, but with some improvements – namely a new chrome-laden Microsoft logo, and it even shaves more than half a millimeter off the chassis.
The Surface Pro 4 is more than just good design – it launched with a pen that had more levels of pressure sensitivity and new hardware buttons. And, the Type Cover was heavier and more satisfying to the touch this time around, on top of the boosted screen resolution of 2,736 x 1,824 – up to 216 ppi, versus the 2017 MacBook Air’s 128 ppi.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4: Who's it for? Should I buy it?
If you’re not into the gigantic size, not to mention price, of the Surface Book 2, the Surface Pro 4 isn’t just a worthy alternative, but an excellent first choice for creative professionals that are always moving around. It costs less than the new Surface Pro 6 if you buy it refurbished.
Although there are admittedly shortcomings when it comes to the battery life of the Surface Pro 4, it still holds up as a product that we can safely recommend to Windows tablet newcomers and veterans alike. As a ‘Pro’ device, the Surface Pro 4, of course, ships with Windows 10 Pro pre-installed (a $199/£219/AU$339 value).
That doesn’t even mention the Surface Pro 4’s beautiful display, which is crystal clear when pitted up against its predecessor. The Type Cover may be sold separately, too, but it feels extremely good to type on anyway. As we mentioned earlier, the battery life only lasts 3 hours and 15 minutes in PCMark, which is pretty unacceptable for a tablet, but the fast components more than make up for the frequent need to recharge.
And, thanks to its dramatically lower pricing, the Surface Pro 4 is bound to retain a dedicated audience well into the future.
The Surface Pro 4 is noticeably cheaper and better than similar ARM-based tablets. Just look at HP’s Envy x2 – you may have expected it to be more affordable than Microsoft’s own tablets due to the use of Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chips found in many Android devices.
Unfortunately, it’s far more expensive. For the time being, you’re better off picking up the Asus NovaGo if LTE functionality at a low price is what you’re after. Meanwhile, the Surface Pro 4 is $50 less than the NovaGo and features twice the storage and more powerful hardware inside.
Design and display
This is the Surface Pro 4 configuration sent to TechRadar for review:
CPU: 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U (dual-core, 3MB cache, up to 3GHz with Turbo Boost)
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520
RAM: 8GB LPDDR3
Screen: 12.3-inch, 2,736 x 1,824 PixelSense display (Contrast ratio: 1,300:1, 100% sRGB color, 10-point multi-touch, 3:2 aspect ratio)
Storage: 256GB SSD (PCIe 3.0)
Ports: 1x USB 3.0, mini DisplayPort, microSD card reader (UHS-I), headphone/mic jack
Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi (2 x 2 MIMO), Bluetooth 4.0 (Low Energy)
Cameras: 8MP rear-facing, auto-focus camera (1080p HD); 5MP front-facing, 1080p HD camera
Weight: 1.73 pounds (786g)
Size: 11.5 x 7.93 x 0.36 inches (292.10 x 201.42 x 8.4mm; W x D x H)
Just like last time, the same all-magnesium, uni-body casing is still here, though the 'Surface' logo has been replaced with Microsoft's new logo in chrome.
Microsoft boosted the Surface Pro 4’s display size by a few hairs, from 12 inches to 12.3 inches, without affecting the device’s footprint. In fact, the company shaved more than half a millimeter off of its thickness, from 9.1mm to 8.4mm – all while including full-fat mobile U-series processors.
As for how this was done, the capacitive Windows button said goodbye, thus the extra room for that three tenths of an inch in the display.
Then, Microsoft brought the screen's optical stack – the series of sensors, diodes and pixels beneath the glass – even closer to the glass now, a key point of Microsoft's trademarked PixelSense screen technology.
The display is thus incredibly responsive to touch, and the further sensitivity it brings to the stylus experience is huge. In tandem with the improved Surface Pen, the screen detects 1,024 levels of pressure, even during a single stroke.
Now, let’s look at that resolution. Microsoft increased the Surface Pro 4’s resolution from 2,160 x 1,440 (216 ppi, or pixels per inch) to 2,736 x 1,824. That makes for a whopping 267 ppi for the Surface Pro 4, which blows the MacBook Air 2017 (128 ppi for the 13-inch), away completely, and just barely beating out the first-generation iPad Pro 12.9-inch at 264 ppi.
More importantly, the new screen proves to be way more luminous and more color accurate than the Surface Pro 3 display at all brightness levels. This is obviously going to be a pretty big deal for any designers or artists that are looking to upgrade from the Wacom tablet and calibrated monitor combo.
For the rest of us, this means more realistic-looking movies and more vibrant photos and games. That's despite even thicker black bars sandwiching your favorite films in 16:9 – and even more so for those in 21:9, or widescreen format, thanks to the 3:2 aspect ratio that remains from last generation.
It's a fair concern for folks that watch plenty of movies and TV on a tablet. But fear not, workers, for you're the very reason Microsoft made this decision. The 3:2 aspect ratio is a middle ground between 16:9 and 4:3 that is ideal for both photo and design or drafting work, wherein 3:2 is much more common, as well as getting computational work done, given the extra vertical space.
Surface Pen and Type Cover
In addition to the aforementioned 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, the new-and-included Surface Pen is redesigned to feel more like a pencil. The stylus now has one flat side, as if a Number 2 pencil had all but two of its angles rounded off.
This version is even more comfortable to hold than the last as a result – your index finger rests just above the main function button on the flat end. Secondly, the left side of the frame is coated with thin, powerful strip magnets that allow it to cling onto the tablet's left side. The age of stylus loops is over.
When the Surface Pen is paired with Microsoft’s PixelSense display, the combination results in the best stylus experience we’ve had on a tablet for as little as we’re likely to actually use it. While we’re neither artists nor designers, the screen’s superb palm detection and the accuracy and nuance of the Pen tracking gives us confidence that the Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft’s best shot at luring in that crowd yet.
Coupled with Microsoft's PixelSense display, the duo makes for the best stylus experience we've had on a tablet yet for as little as we're wont to use it. While we're neither artists nor designers, the screen's superb palm detection and the accuracy and nuance of the Pen tracking give us confidence that the Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft's best shot at luring in that crowd yet.
These improvements pale in comparison with Microsoft's new-and-still-not-included Type Cover. This time around, Microsoft took a chiclet-style approach. This makes keeping track of which keys your fingers are on by feel much easier, and it allows for each key to be individually back lit.
The new Type Cover is also thicker and far more rigid than before, allowing for deeper key travel and punchier feedback – not to mention a sturdier, quieter surface to type on – that brings it so much closer to a true laptop keyboard. Microsoft also widened the touchpad and coated it in glass rather than plastic.
Finally, Microsoft has a version of the Type Cover with a biometric Fingerprint ID for $159 (£149, AU$249). The new keyboard cover is only available in black and uses to login to the Surface with a fingertip press. The scanner can also authorise app purchases from the Windows Store, and because the keyboard is backwards compatible, it can be used with the too.
All the performance scores, except for PCMark 8 Home, shows a minor increase from the first unit we tested. It’s a good sign that the Surface Pro 4 was already operating at its peak, except for a battery that needed fixing.
The Surface Pro 4 beat out the 2015 HP Spectre x360 in nearly every test by about 25%. As for the 13-inch MacBook Air, its multi-core Geekbench 3 (which tests processors primarily) score is way short of what the Surface Pro 4 reached.
If you’re curious, the Surface Pro 4 runs Hearthstone (our de facto tablet game) without breaking a sweat at the highest settings – even at an automatically adapted resolution. Plus, the color-calibrated display makes every part of Hearthstone’s play area that much more distracting.
At the end of the day, there isn’t a massive difference between the Surface Pro 4 and its competitors when it comes to everyday performance, though the MacBook Air has a bigger battery. If anything, you get slightly better gaming performance on the Surface Pro 4 than the 2015 Spectre x360, though neither are gaming devices.
Tested on pre-production hardware that we were promised has been scrubbed of its battery woes, the Surface Pro 4 produced far better battery life results than at the onset. Unfortunately, they're still well below not only Microsoft's own claims, but what choice rivals are able to put up.
While arguably the most harsh battery test in our lineup, PCMark 8 Home Battery saw the Pro 4 last 3 hours and 15 minutes, a marked 50% increase from before. Still, the Spectre x360 held out in that test for 4 hours and 38 minutes.
Microsoft's tablet fared much better on our video playback test, lasting 5 hours and 15 minutes. That's enough to last you on most coast-to-coast US flights.
In a similar test, the MacBook Air was able to stream 1080p video over Wi-Fi for a whopping 13 hours and 24 minutes. Though, that's thanks to a far lower-resolution display and likely a larger battery.
Regardless, Microsoft promises up to 9 hours of video playback, and these numbers aren't close. Sure, these figures are far better than last year's Surface Pro 3, despite the serious screen resolution bump, which should not be overlooked. But, they still can't hold a candle to neither Apple's leading laptop nor its top tablet – much less comparable Windows hybrids.
Longevity is then about the only thing holding the Surface Pro 4 back from truly, honestly replacing your laptop – or at least your MacBook Air specifically. Otherwise, the machine offers somewhat below-average lasting power.
Not convinced? Try these:
: With an incredible display, long battery life and all of the essential accessories in the box, this tablet all but requires you to make liberal use of Samsung’s phone-exclusive syncing and biometric login features via Samsung Flow, its key selling points. Just mind the lack of Windows Hello.
: A great price, USB-C and USB 3.0, and an included keyboard cover make the Miix 510 an appealing option. While there are a couple of reasons (battery, screen) why you’d go for the Surface Pro 4 instead, but the Miix 510 offers an awful lot for the price. But, again, what's counting against it is considerable.
: Its unique kickstand, even sharper IPS screen and hardier included keyboard cover help the Spectre x2 stand out. You'll stay for the impressive spec sheet and premium. That said, it's too bad that the stylus doesn't come included with this device, unlike its rivals. This is likely the biggest rival to the Surface line today.
First reviewed: October 2015
Bill Thomas and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this review